Poets and painters have always hung out together, lived in the same neighborhoods, frequented the same cafes. Often, those same poets have acted as critics, interpreters of the art with which they were intimately familiar.
Taking this idea as a starting point, the Salt Lake Art Center beginning Aug. 27 will host “Poets as Critics: Their Contributions to the Visual Arts,” an exploration of the poet’s role in contemporary art criticism, presenting the subject from the viewpoints of two poets and an art historian.
And a rich history it is. In the 19th century, Charles Baudelaire counted the painter Edouard Manet among his friends; based several poems in The Flowers of Evil on paintings by Goya; and was well-known as an art critic as well as a poet. He wrote about Eugene Delacroix, who was influenced by the poetry of Byron. In turn, Baudelaire’s friend, Manet, was influenced by both Goya and Delacroix.
The contemporary version of this circle game leads us to Joni Mitchell, D.H. Lawrence, Bob Dylan and other poets who also paint. U.S. Poet Laureate and once-University of Utah Professor Mark Strand started studying painting with Joseph Albers before he became a poet. Since then, he has written books on painters William Bailey and Edward Hopper. (The Hopper exhibition at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts closes Aug. 24.) While living in Utah, Strand collaborated with Salt Lake painter Bonnie Sucec on an art book, A Poet’s Alphabet of Influences, published in 1993 by Red Butte Press. Alex Caldiero is a local poet, painter and performance artist who is collaborating on a show with Frank McEntire, sculptor, art critic and director of the Utah Arts Council. It opens next month at Art Access Gallery.
Jim Edwards, recently arrived curator of exhibitions for the Salt Lake Art Center, is intrigued by the idea of some poets “living this double life, of doing their own work and publishing criticisms of visual artists.”
The Art Center show opens with David Brauer, who will show slides of paintings and sculptures from his personal 60,000-slide collection and read text and poems dedicated to or inspired by works of Western art from the 18th century to the present. Brauer studied art and art history at St. Martin’s School of Art in London and heads the department of art history at The Glassell School of Art, Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. He also will speak to the overall influence of poets on the literature of art criticism and theory, from Baudelaire to Frank O’Hara.
Following this historical overview, on Sept. 3, the Art Center has scheduled a conversation with widely-published poet W.S. Di Piero, who teaches poetry at Stanford and writes an art criticism column for the weekly San Diego Reader. In addition to poetry, he has published several books of art criticism including Memory and Enthusiasm; Out of Eden: Essays on Modern Art; and Shooting the Works. Di Piero is known internationally for his translations of modern Italian poetry. (As judge of the 1999 Bordighera Bilingual Poetry Prize, Di Piero declared no winner, “having found no manuscript deserving of the prize.”) He is also an expert on the poet Basil Bunting, a not-very-celebrated contemporary of Ezra Pound and a favorite of curator Edwards.
Poet/critic Peter Clothier, another import from the British Isles, has covered the Los Angeles art scene for more than 20 years as essayist and critic. He will be at the Art Center on Sept. 24 for the second “conversation” moderated by Edwards. Previously dean of the College of Fine and Communication Arts at Loyola Marymount University and dean and acting director of The Otis Art Institute of Los Angeles, Clothier now is a frequent book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times and author of a monograph on David Hockney as well as Chiaroscuro, A Novel and another murder mystery set in the art world. He has written criticism for ARTnews, Artforum and Art in America.
“These guys have very strong views,” said Edwards, and unarguably good credentials. Utah Arts Council director Frank McEntire says he believes all artists can be critics: “The poet-as-critic-as-artist has the ability to analyze personal encounters with works of art in words, the same tools used by the art critic.”
But McEntire says there is another side to his observation: “Do poets have some mystical or rhetorical advantage over art critics? I doubt it. Writing poems and art criticism are two different exercises.” And he wonders if these poet/critics are overstepping in trying to explain the creative process involved in visual art, something they don’t do themselves.
“I’ve heard poets say when questioned about a particular work, ‘If I could explain it, it wouldn’t be a poem; it would be an essay,’” said McEntire. “To paraphrase the painter Barnett Newman, ‘[Art criticism] is to artists as ornithology is to birds.’”